Letter from Benedict Amundson
You cannot know how overjoyed I am that you have agreed to go on my quest for the Cave of 504 Treasures. I have been on the trail of this exotic discovery for over a decade, waiting for the right group with the brawn and muscle—but not lacking in the brain department, either, no disrespect to the skeletons among you—to follow through on the brilliant epiphanies I have achieved over the last year or two.
As you no doubt know, many teams of adventurers have gone looking for the Cave of 504 Treasures, but none who have found it have ever returned. Nevertheless, tales of its lavish riches continue to circulate, particularly in the Northern Free Cities, where the tales seem to originate. For that reason, most expeditions have targeted the forbidding mountains north of Tannheim, if for no other reason than that they seem properly heroic. No one has yet managed to compile the diverse sources, some of them recovered from little-studied archives or personal collections, that I have, so I am confident that I will be arming you with more information than any other adventuring team has yet had in approaching the Cave.
My first clue that I could truly make this fable a reality was a little-known manuscript usually called the Bergskrigare Epic, or the “Epic of the Mountain Warrior.” It speaks of a series of trials ending in a great reward, perhaps the earliest of such narratives in the region, and it was the first hint to me that we should be looking further west, in the rocky cliffs north of the Shallow Isles and west of Vallir—which of course in the Age of Heroes would have been significantly further from the sea than now, and perhaps more romantically isolated. As well, the popular assumption that the cave should be near Tannheim seems to be based on the assumption that it will be both remote and near the important population centres, but in the Age of Heroes there were many cities now unknown to us, and Vallir and Tannheim were not the sole regional powers that they became in more recent centuries. The Bergskrigare manuscript is one of the oldest known versions of a song that continues to be performed and sung, particularly in the winter months approaching the turning of the year, further associating it with northernliness. As the landscape has shifted with the rising seas, the common folk seem to have shifted the setting of the Epic further and further north and east in order to preserve a sense of mountainous splendor and fit setting, a pathetic fallacy common among the peasantry, with their low education rates and reliance on folk knowledge.
My willingness to reinterpret these oral traditions proved useful, however, as I believe most scholars have overlooked these routes to knowledge of the Cave, choosing to focus largely on historical documents like the Epic. Countless exploratory groups have disappeared into the Tanhall Mountains, never to return, due to this oversight. However, I began to trace motifs that appear in the Epic—the concept of a risk of “endless death,” the figure of the intrepid hero scaling mountains, the structure of a series of deliberately-set challenges leading to a treasure—throughout the oral and folk traditions of the greater northern region, with surprising results. It would appear that these old stories have made their way even into the oral traditions of isolationist species like the Lizard Folk and the Dwarves, much further east than I would have guessed before beginning my research. This suggests that the Cave and its contents were once much better understood, and that the passage of time has distorted the story. For example, the Dwarven written texts mentioning a treasure cave that cannot be pinpointed to a specific site do bear many similarities, not least the peculiar threat that a failure to utilize both the head and the body simultaneously will result in failure, but differ in that they do not list the number of treasures to be found in the cave at all. In fact, the name Cave of 504 Treasures seems to be specific to the Northern Free Cities, another reason I feel confident that the treasure is located in the north, if not in the Tannhall Mountains that have been the focus of research to date.
Lizard Folk sources can be linked to the story by the mention of the “endless death motif,” particularly the line in a popular tragic ballad promising “A river of endless death | Pouring out, pouring down, | For when it pours the river fills | Your head, your heart, until you drown.” This rough translation captures the shifting meter of the song but not its sibilance, of course, since the Lizard Folk language has a peculiar consistency making it nearly impossible for an outsider to learn to a degree of oral fluency. In any case, the song mentions that endless death in terms of a flowing river, which I took to mean access to a coastline or at the very least watershed region. Even the Halflings have stories of heroes who must solve a series of riddles and extravagant challenges to reach a valuable reward, particularly the Ballad of Martha the Wise, and folk stories about John the Adventuresome (perhaps an overstatement of adventuresomeness, since the Halflings’ pedestrian imaginations often seem to reduce the stakes, and are the only source not to mention the “endless death” line which is otherwise extremely consistent). They do still emphasize the need for both body and mind simultaneously, hence my reluctance to travel on my own to follow up on my hunch. As you know, my academic fervor and brilliance is not precisely matched in my athletic prowess.
Here is a summary of my findings based on a rigorous comparison and coding of the written and oral texts of the pan-northern peoples: first, the cave will provide a series of tasks, testing your fitness to earn its treasures; second, many of the stories believe the cave is sentient, or at the least enchanted, so that it can make that assessment and perhaps interfere in your completion of its challenges—though only one of the sources, despite the huge geographic spread of the stories, attributes this consciousness to a god, and that is from a small village on present-day Las Tunas, further helping me locate the cave to the west; third, at least some of the tasks will require your mind and body to be at work simultaneously, or risk catastrophic failure; fifth, a perhaps water-borne “endless death” is a very real threat for failure to complete one or more of the tests; sixth, the winding cave tunnels may require serious spelunking to navigate the “maze” or “labyrinth” mentioned in many of the texts, particularly those from further east; seventh, the result truly is a wealth beyond imagining. The sources all describe it differently. The Lizard Folk, for example, attribute it to a hero’s replica of a dragon’s hoard, a collection of all the loot he won over a long career. León and Manzanillo have a folk story of a treasure cave—otherwise extremely similar in content to the Cave of 504 Treasures stories—harboring pirate booty, although that is clearly anachronistic, given that the region would have been considerably above sea level if the cave does indeed date back to the Age of Heroes. The stories throughout the Northern Free Cities all promise types of wealth that are not native to the region of the story or folk song, implying that much of the treasure is exotic and unfamiliar to the writers of the original sources.
I have gathered the approximate location, the best descriptions of the pitfalls of the cave available, and believe that I have found in you the right team to follow up on my work. I trust that you will do what no hero has done before and not only locate the cave, but bring back its treasures for the world to marvel upon.
Best wishes, and may any listening god protect you,